My Beautiful Grandmother

Byer, Kathryn Stripling

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-1998
  • Last revised: Nov-30-2009


The title and first line, "My Beautiful Grandmother / died ugly," set the tone for contrasts that continue throughout the poem: health and illness, beauty and ugliness, youth and age, life and death, staying and leaving. The poem initially describes the grandmother as aged, ready to die, anorexic and in such pain that she required six years of morphine. The needles used to inject medication, which left her arms bruised "black and blue" are contrasted with her previous embroidery needles, which she had used to stitch "pink cornucopias / on square after square of white cotton."

The grandmother was ready to die for a long time, to a place and time apart--to the mountains and to her spirited youth, when she was "dashing" and her "mind was as quick / as the stitch of a sparrow's wing." The poem continues with the compression of time yet marking the effects of time: old love letters to the grandmother crumble "like stale bread" in the hands of the granddaughter. The poem concludes with a short stanza alluding to difficulties that the granddaughter experienced leaving the Georgia town where her "beautiful grandmother stayed."


This poem reminds us of the person within the elderly patient, reminds us to look beyond the thin sheath of the hospital gown and the withered purpuric skin to the patient in the context of a past and a family. Whereas William Carlos Williams's poem, The Last Words of My English Grandmother describes the grandmother's vehement irascibility in the face of loss of control as she is whisked away in an ambulance, Byer's poem details the youth and life of the grandmother.

In Williams's poem, the grandmother withdraws from nature (the row of elms), but in Byer's poem, the grandmother views nature as a release ("the sky coming down / like a good sleep"). Neither poem, however, sentimentalizes death and dying in the elderly.

Primary Source

The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest


Texas Tech Univ. Press

Place Published

Lubbock, Tex.